My hanami last week started grimly. One participant, when asked why he looked so glum on such a happy occasion, explained that he was thinking of the Kosovo refugees. He had once been in the hills where they have fled, and even though he was prepared for it, he still remembers the cold and the discomfort. He wondered how badly they were suffering.

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A glance at the front pages of just about any newspaper or the TV news is all you need to get an idea of their pain. Ironically, however, it sometimes seems as if the real suffering is in Belgrade. At times, there is more anguishing about the anguish in Yugoslavia than there is about the plight of the refugees. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe the emphasis belongs on ethnic cleansing and what looks like genocide, rather than Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s consolidation of power.

This strange development is only one of the many ironies of the Kosovo conflict. And, like the others discussed below, it is a product of the Internet.

Yugoslavia is a wired country, and the Serbs are a technology-savvy people. They were quick to use the Net to disseminate independent opinions in a country where the official media have been handmaidens of the government. When the independent B92 radio station was closed by the government a few years ago, they broadcast Real Audio feeds on the Net. (It reopened later.)

When the NATO attacks were imminent last month, the head of the station was arrested. A news service that normally has nothing to do with such political matters relayed news of the arrest and provided daily updates until he was released. At last glance, English-language service has been suspended again. Check its status at www.b92.net.

The NATO action, like the Persian Gulf War, is a high-tech enterprise. But most of the attention has focused on cyberwar — the weapons and the hardware. The real war is the netwar, the fight for the minds and hearts of the people. I mentioned netwar here May 20, 1998, but a new study* and the Kosovo war make it pertinent again.

A quick recap: Netwar, according to analyst David Ronfeldt and his colleagues, is “an emerging mode of conflict at societal levels, involving measures short of traditional war, in which the protagonists use network forms of organization and related doctrines, strategies and technologies attuned to the information age.” The classic example is the Zapatista conflict in Mexico. There, the conflict united a slew of foreign nongovernment organizations in a swarm that descended upon Mexico and Chiapas, forcing the government to adopt certain policies and ultimately to negotiate with the rebels.

Netwar is about information and perception management — “mediaoriented measures that aim to attract rather than coerce and that affect how secure a society, a military or other actor feels about its knowledge about itself and its adversaries.” By just about every measure, it appears that the Serbs are winning the netwar over Kosovo.

Irony #1. Information is flowing out of Yugoslavia, not in, and the view that is being spread is of the hardships being forced onto the Serb people. The Japan Times has received dozens of letters that explain the pain and suffering in Belgrade. (See last Sunday’s letters column for a sample.) Mailing lists have been set up and others have been inundated with these messages. Check out Rewired (www.rewired.com/ 99/0329.html) for excellent first-person reports from the war zone.

The Serbs’ use of the Internet demonstrates the power of the medium. The Kosovar refugees have been uprooted, which has left them unable to tell their stories themselves. When they are reported, they’re filtered through the news media, which frame those tales with the policy decisions of governments. The perception of one is inevitably linked to the other. Given the cynicism that colors public perceptions of political decision-making, the result is that the refugees’ accounts are tainted, too.

In contrast, the Serb stories are told in the first person, go directly to interested audiences and speak a language and use a worldview that most readers cannot but sympathize with. The intelligence and sensitivity of many of the comments are extraordinary. They have gone a long way toward shaping international perceptions of the war and its impact — much to the West’s detriment.

Of course, there are some glitches. Last week, Mark Thompson wrote about one snafu that flooded news organizations and probably hurt the cause more than it helped. Still, ordinary Serbs are very adept at using new technology to broadcast to the world. The Kosovars, a poor, land-bound people, are not.

I don’t mean to minimize the suffering of the Serbs, but I am troubled about perspective. But then, as Karl von Clausewitz explained in his classic study of the subject, war is the continuation of politics by other means. Create the perspective and you are winning the war.

Irony #2. Yugoslavia, an advanced country by many standards, is engaged in gruesome atrocities against a poor province. We like to think that technological sophistication (a byproduct of capitalism and the mind-set it breeds) is matched with moral maturity. It’s wrong to tar all of Yugoslavia with the brush of Milosevic’s policies, but what’s happening now isn’t supposed to happen. The people with the pitchforks are supposed to be the savages, not the folks with the modems. (Yes, I know it is naive, but a reality check is always helpful.)

Perhaps that is irony #3. For all the talk about netwar, “soft power” and postindustrial values, the bottom line is that the people with guns and a willingness to use them will prevail over those who lack the weapons or the will. It is a simple, Hobbesian world and forgetting that can be fatal. Just ask those folks in the hills.